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2022-06-09

Leading the Digital Transformation: Non-ferrous Metal enterprise embarks on the DX journey

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Unlike steel and coal enterprises, it is more challenging to realize digital transformation in the non-ferrous metal industry, due to discrete and complex operation, obstacles in data acquisition, feeble infrastructure and so on.

Zijin Mining has leveraged advanced technologies including 5G, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), cloud computing, big data and digital twin to actively pursue digital transformation these years, and it has established two technology companies, namely Zijin Zhixin and Zijin Zhikong, to provide self-sufficient service for its own digital transformation. By doing so, the enterprise expects to break through technical barriers and advance the core technologies for digital transformation through a series of remarkable cases. Meanwhile, they hope to forge “smart mines” and “smart factories” to empower the non-ferrous metal industry and become its pioneer of digital transformation.

Challenges of DX in Non-ferrous Metal Industry: Tech, Mindset & Investment

Zijin Mining Group Co., Limited is a large multinational mining company specializing in exploration and exploitation of gold, copper and other mineral resources, as well as research on application of engineering technology. In an interview with D1Net, Mr. Dong Wensheng, Director of Information, Zijin Mining Group, stated that the non-ferrous metal industry is facing challenges, in terms of technology and mindset based on his decades of experience in dealing with informatization and digital transformation within this industry and the steel one.

Firstly, the industry has been facing technical challenges in data acquisition.

The source of non-ferrous mineral resources is mostly uncertain. Dong indicated that it is the core of this industry, while most of the resources are sparsely distributed underground. The existing geological exploration techniques generally follow a certain density of exploration grid for drilling, then core (rock flour) sampling and laboratory tests, and lastly, building up a geological model instruct the subsequent mining layout and exploration. That being said, extracting resources for mineral mining is more or less data sampling and we cannot be 100% sure about the distribution and the grades of ores. Therefore, the accuracy of data and models are imprecise which makes digital transformation challenging.

Moreover, the data cannot be obtained in real time when mining is ongoing. Many traditional mining equipment does not support connection to network and data transfer, resulting in the absence of data and more manual workload.

The other issue is the inaccuracy of data in the process of ore dressing. The content of metal elements such as gold and copper in non-ferrous mines is very low, ranging from a few percent to a few thousandths. Thus, the industry encounters another challenge in obtaining accurate data about ore grades in real time, which  is critical for organising the subsequent classification process.

Aside from the technical challenges, mindset of digitalization and willingness to invest also pose challenges.

The mindset of mining workers is relatively conservative owing to the remotely-located non-ferrous mines and poor technical support and infrastructure, so it takes effort to promote refined management and encourage investments. While the IT investment of the steel industry is 1-1.5% of sales revenue, it is only 1-2% for the non-ferrous industry, with tremendous room for improvement.


Zijin Mining: DX Goals & Three-Step Strategy

In response to the above challenges, Zijin Mining attaches great importance to informatization and digitalization—an informatization development committee was set up in 2018 and the “Five-Year Informatization Development Plan of Zijin Mining” was approved, proposing to focus on the operation process of the company and the construction of a modern information system.

In 2021, Zijin Mining published the “Outline of the Five-Year (2+3) Plan and 2030 Development Objective,” aiming at building an advanced management system for global operation and becoming a green, high-tech, first- class international mining group. The outline highlighted that the enterprise will holistically enhance its system and technologies, as well as engineering research, design and execution capabilities. It helps to exploit more competitive advantages with better technologies, quickly result in breakthroughs of mining technologies and engineering, promote the application of “integrating five ore treatment processes into one” management model, construct global information system and realize digitalization and platformization in operation and management.

Dong stated that the digital transformation of Zijin Mining is clearly based on a three-step strategy.

Step 1 - Informatization. Transform core businesses operations to fully online and establish channels for data acquisition. Set up platforms for global operation to ensure interconnection of various systems and operations inside and outside of the country. Internationalize the information system to support management reform.


Step 2 - Digitalization. Aggregate data to realize the fusion of operation and finance and support comprehensive budget. Complete and continue optimizing information systems and basically establish systems for data processing and operation. Combine intelligence into data application and realize international informatized systems. Drive management reform with operation innovation.


Step 3 - Digital-intelligent transformation. Leverage AI, big data and more technologies for intelligent analysis with accumulated data to carry out risk prediction of operations, achieve the goal of comprehensive budget and intelligent decision-making. Realize efficient, advanced information processing and optimized operation systems. Embed the system with a high degree of intelligence. Offer high-quality, industry-leading services and solutions through our information products and public service platforms.

Digitalization in Non-ferrous Metal Industry: Empowering from Exploration, Exploitation to Utilization

After years of efforts, Zijin Mining has now applied digital technologies to all aspects of mining resources, from exploration, exploitation to utilization, so as to enhance overall productivity.

“There are five processes in exploiting to utilizing non-ferrous metal resources: geological exploration, survey, mining, dressing and smelting. All these stages involve various technologies, say, to assign production tasks and collect production data based on mobile internet, to empower the mining transportation chain using remote control and unmanned driving, to increase efficiency of grade inspection with online grade analyzer, to improve the control of ore dressing via image recognition, to enhance the intelligence on ore dressing with professional systems, to realize automated smelting by digitalization and so on,” said Dong.

Geological exploration utilizes physical and chemical techniques to ¬identify whether the mineral resources reach the available grades and their distribution. Through orchestrating the data of punching locations, density and ore-related characteristics with digital technologies for exploration and sampling, we can combine the laboratory data with the location data to create a three-dimensional geological model via modelling-enabled digitalized technologies.

Survey refers to measuring and investigating various shot holes and the amount of work on digging during mining. This section is closely associated with geological exploration and mining.

Mining can be broken into perforation, explosion, mucking, transportation, dumping and so forth when we look into strip mining. Zijin Mining has realized digital orchestration of mining plans empowered by digitalization. This enables the enterprise to notify workers of the assigned daily tasks through the allocation system supported by mobile technology, so that they can work in an organized manner on sites and facilitate mobilized data reporting and collecting.

Dressing involves ore shattering, screening, milling, grading, roughing, cleaning, scavenging and dewatering, etc. Zijin Mining leverages automated devices such as belt conveyor scales and laser scanning systems to increase the accuracy and efficiency of collecting milling data and ore output information; integrated with online grade analyzers, X-ray fluorescence analyzers and laboratory tests, the efficiency of examining the pulp grade can be enhanced and it makes up for the lower productivity of laboratory testing; dressing control systems that are fused with AI technology enables image recognition of foams. By intelligently analyzing the size, movement speed and existing time of foams and automatically adjusting the charge and air blowing, on-site dressing can be more efficient.

Smelting is a relatively seamless process involved with a high degree of automation. Among the industry, the output management of smelting of Zijin Mining is allegedly at the forefront, which can manage and automatically control every sub-section including smelting, electrolysis and acid production with their output management and automated control systems, significantly increase the productivity. As for transportation, charging and lifting anode plates that involves manual efforts, we have worked on introducing remote control of vehicles and strengthening digitalization, so as to improve the safety and efficiency of smelting.

Explore the Intelligent Mines: Safer & Smarter Production

Constructing intelligent mines is the road ahead for the mining industry. Leveraging 5G, visual recognition, IoT, unmanned driving, smart devices, digital twin and other technologies, Zijin Mining embarked on exploring the intelligent mine field, primarily concerning on-site devices and production management systems.

When you are in the mine site, truck dispatching systems and other smart devices enable automated and intelligentized mining process; under the shaft, manual tasks can be replaced by unmanned electric vehicles; in the open pit, smarter and safer production can be realized with unmanned driving or remote control of vehicles. As for dressing, intelligent dressing systems can strengthen its on-site automation.

“We are applying the HarmonyOS to the mining devices to intelligentize them. During mining, these devices enable real-time data transfer and thus analysis of the on-site operating situation. Instead of carrying inspection by workers under shafts, mobilized robots help to check the sources of danger for further on-site safety,” continued Dong.

In terms of safety, Zijin Mining built a database of the risks and countermeasures of all aspects they collected, as well as an application on for their staff to study and enhance the awareness. The enterprise leverages image recognition technology and sensors for detection and warning, promptly discovering safety concerns such as workers with no helmet on. With slope detection and micro-seismic systems based on IoT and AI, it allows automated monitoring on the changes and tendencies of the terrain and landscape to pre-warn the site and upgrade its safety.

Regarding the production, the enterprise constructed a smart, dynamic platform that realizes the fusion of operation and finance for connecting all processes together and enabling automatic data transmission, enhancing the decision-making of the enterprise in view of production and operation. Zijin Mining also stretched to the recently prevalent digital twin technology. “It is best applied to scenarios where are not easily visible or directly measurable. In the mining industry, it is crucial to have sufficient data for building a geological model. When we combine digital twin technology with a geological 3D model and we overlay the data we obtain into it, it enables analysis of the mining progress and strengthens the prediction capability through comparison,” added Dong. Zijin Mining is still working on this typical scenario.

By conducting digital twin modelling of the high-temperature, high-pressure bottom-blowing furnace, side-blowing furnace and anode furnace, as well as collecting real-time data with various sensors, Zijin Mining is able to predict the completion time of smelting after integrating the twin models to derive the reaction in the furnaces. Staff in the control center can immediately get hold of its situation in order to instruct the production process, thereby enhancing the efficiency.

“Zijin Ark Platform”: Promote Independent Development of Industrial Software

“Zijin Ark Platform, built on industrial Internet, was the key to standardization, platformization and informatization when we were performing digital transformation,” highlighted Dong throughout the interview with D1Net.

He continued, “We have been introducing different software over the years to improve the system. While they are developed on various platforms, it is challenging to achieve uniformity when we need to upgrade or modify them. The islanding effect between multiple systems is apparent as well.” These problems are indeed common in the industry.

To overcome this dilemma, the enterprise has developed the Zijin Ark Platform since 2020 for developing industrial software independently. Adopting the currently popular IaaS+PaaS+SaaS framework, the platform offers service to the outside through the data center. The IaaS layer realizes data acquisition at the edge; PaaS is where the unified data center locates, offering data services and standardized development tools; as for SaaS, it involves production, management and other services.

Zijin Mining developed software and applications on its platform, ranging from production, procurement, sales and so on; for instance, their production management system for mines also supports the SRM system for procurement, CPS system, device management system and warehousing management system and safety control system for on-site industrial data collection.

According to Dong, the fundamental function of Zijin Ark Platform is to facilitate data access among systems. Developers who use the same platform possess the same developing capability play a key role in standardizing, platformizing and informatizing Zijin Mining’s construction, as they are able to apply the same capability in quickly developing other application systems as long as their business awareness is enhanced.

Beside supporting a single mine, the platform is also capable of backing the whole enterprise’s management, and realizes the interconnectivity of data based on unified industrial Internet platform. At present, it is still improving in hope of supporting production, operation and ecosystem and empowering the industry.

Digitalization: To Build a Global Operation and Management System

Zijin Mining has gone on a fast track to globalization since 2021 for becoming a world-class metal mining company. In view of developing the global operation management system, with their systems covering both domestic and overseas mines, Zijin Mining integrated the management of people, finance and assets into the SAP-based ERP system, so as to efficiently and timely control the production and finance of all mines. They also carried out transformations of automation and intelligentization in the production sites for better productivity and efficiency.

The mines under Zijin Mining span across the world, including Serbia (Europe), Columbia (South America) and Congo (Africa). Many of them are located in relatively less developed countries and regions, therefore their network capability of the IT infrastructure that restricts the digitalization of local mines is one of the constraints. Meanwhile, by combining private network and SD-WAN, Zijin Mining guarantees a smooth network experience for global operations. Regarding the transmission of core data, private network can make it quicker; while SD-WAN comes in handy when the network is poor as it can divert part of the traffic of video conferencing and large file transmission.

Dong commented on the choice of network providers, “Our partners are very diverse, we cooperate with the three major carriers in China, while in overseas, we look thoroughly into the network condition and the overall cost of the local providers.” China Entercom, a partner of Zijin Mining, is a subsidiary of CITIC Telecom CPC whose services cover the Belt and Road and RCEP’s member states with network coverage of over 160 countries. Their services met the needs of Zijin Mining: fast activation, flexibility, scalability; and they advanced the globalization progress that fast network access was established for branches in Russia, Serbia, Columbia and Australia.

“We solve the problems on our own as much as possible to reduce costs, and those that cannot be solved internally, Zijin Mining acquires some of the resources through the group, such as private network and SD-WAN, for lower operational costs,” said Dong.

Meanwhile, Zijin Mining appointed China Entercom, a subsidiary of CITIC Telecom CPC,  to develop the data PoP in Hong Kong based on the virtualization technologies of VMware (including VMware Center Server, vSphere + Virtual SAN and vSAN network connectivity). This operation-oriented solution provides proper software and hardware resources allocation, automatic control, co-working environment, as well as rapid deployment for operations with availability up to 99.99% and designed with an effective disaster recovery. Integrated with the existing base-level IT platform, the solution enables efficient cloud computing, backing Zijin Mining’s operations in Hong Kong.

“Cooperating with various excellent suppliers helps us to develop the group-level comprehensive budgetary management system, acquiring real-time data of production and costs from all the mines. It facilitates our budget control and realizes the system with cross-departmental and multi-party collaboration,” mentioned Dong.

Accelerating Digital Transformation is key to the future of Non-ferrous Industry

As a long-term project, digital transformation will not be accomplished overnight. Zijin Mining established two technology companies in 2021, Zijin Zhixin and Zijin Zhikong, to enhance the digital capabilities for operations and services. The former focuses on developing the core systems for intelligentization, whereas the latter deals with automation and intelligence, for instance, researching on smart devices and building control systems.

“The reason why Zijin Mining set up these two enterprises is to fuse the latest technology with operation, provide sustainable, efficient and consistent services for its digital transformation journey, and improve the quality and efficiency of operations with its ever-growing capabilities,” explained Dong.

Going ahead, Zijin Mining is committed to reinforcing the awareness of digital transformation at all levels, as well as accelerating its research and development in various areas to address the challenges in this industry. As the leading enterprise of the non-ferrous industry, Zijin Mining is working hard on accomplishing its digital transformation. Once Zijin Mining achieves through digital transformation, Zijin Zhixin and Zijin Zhikong will take advantage of the fruitful experience to guide the whole industry to embark on their own digital transformation journey.


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